Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Soul of Merton 4-26-09

Inspired by my readings of "Contemplative Prayer" and "Contemplation In A World Of Action" by Thomas Merton

In Contemplation In A World of Action, Merton once again examines the sticky issue of openness verses cloister, of engagement versus withdrawal from the secular world. He writes:

"Openness to the world means involvement in the affairs of people outside the cloister, identification with them in their desires, problems, struggles, dangers; it means vital concern about a world of total war, genocide, race riots, social injustice, misery, poverty, violence, lust, every kind of disorder. All this is wicked and ungodly. Far from divine, it is diabolical. How can one think of such things and maintain the inner peace, the purity of recollection, the serenity of spirit in which one will hear the sweet ineffable call to the divine?"

The deep wisdom that Merton holds in his heart, expressed through his writings, is a clarion call to all spiritual seekers and doers to connect, to plug in, to the world-at-large, to avoid the selfish trap of "blissing out" and becoming disconnected, whether out of fear or plain ignorance, from the real suffering of the peoples of our times, places, and circumstances.

The real revolution, the real heart of Merton's mood expressed through his writings is the urgency and the courage he shares and implores us to have in deepening our contemplation in dynamic engagement. He writes:

"Is the cloistered life merely to escape from the troubles and conflicts of the world to a condition of security and peace in which we find rest and taste the consolations of intimacy with God? Or does it mean sharing the anguish and hope of a world in crisis in which millions struggle for the barest essentials of human existence? Should not the contemplative life be seen in terms of event and encounter rather than simply as a viewing and tasting of essential love? Is love an object or is it a happening? Is God present to us in idea or act?"

From the very core of Prabhupada's mood, we know that to reach out to others, to sacrifice our own nonessential comforts, indeed to sacrifice a traditional life of cloister (this is most relevant for young monks like ourselves in the Bhaktivedanta Ashram in the middle of Manhattan), is the essential way to actually go deep into ourselves, to see that Krsna is there.

We must learn, refine, and perfect the art of communication, of the loving exchange. Merton writes in this regard:

"We have to be open in the sense that we are ready and available in all possible situations, including those of human encounter and exchange. Christian love, including contemplative love, starts from the basic realization that those who are unable to relate to others in a valid human encounter are also handicapped in their relations to the encounter with God."

Our challenge is finding the fine line in our own personal and collective disciplines as spiritual communities, a discipline that will not only prevent us from falling into the mundane, but will sharpen us into becoming dynamic, bold, and deeply caring in our outreach.

We have to consider both sides of the coin: our need for detachment to insure our own spiritual growth, and the the need for engagement to apply and give the lessons of our growth in a mood of compassion and of creating real change in the world. The mature devotee is able to find and perfect this balance, to be strong in and to give by the example of his own character. Merton writes:

"The contemplative life will therefore need to be terms of living experience and witness...What is important now is not so much to preserve order and regularity in observance but to produce real contemplatives, disciples who have found and have known him whom the Father has sent into the world and who are able to bear witness to his reality by their characters, by their lives and by the transformation of their consciousness."

He also says:

"Hence openness is necessary for contemplatives. It is by no means a mere concession, something permitted to modern people who would otherwise become too tense through too much concentration and withdrawal. In one word; openness is now seen to be not only opposed to cloistered contempation but even as necessary for its deepening and renewal."

Our maturity shines through our eagerness to engage with, and the urgency we feel to connect with progressive communities of thought and action who are fighting to shape a better planet, to take the right fork in the road.

We have so much to offer to our thoughtful and wise brothers and sisters, and they also have so much to offer us, which we should never forget. Merton writes:

"We are literally at the crossroads of our destiny. Most people either ignore the spiritual dimensions of the crisis or else they are incapable of apprehending the real issues in any whatever. The contemplative, by selective information and well-chosen exposure to sound commentary, should be able to identify intelligently and compassionately with modern man in crisis. Simple aloofness, withdrawal, and refusal of concern would make the contemplative a scandal to his brother in the world."

He adds:

"Much discipline and humility are necessary for one who tries in all honesty to share with others an undistorted view of the truth. The task of conveying to others clearly and sincerely what one knows of the problems of Christian life, without saying more than one knows and without resorting merely to catch phrases borrowed from books, is a great help for one's own life in Christ."

So, in the unique occupation of a monk in Manhattan, the mood must be one of relish in our opportunities, of careful consideration of our chances and the risks involved, and of deep faith in the potency of the parampara to carry to us what we lack and to enhance what we have. Merton clearly states:

"We are living through the greatest crisis in the history of man, and this crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action and has lost (or perhaps never had) the sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation, and contemplation are of the utmost importance in America today."

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